The acronyms take up two pages in the Federal Identity Management Handbook.

There's the CBEFF -- that stands for Common Biometric Exchange Formats Framework. There's ECDSA, for Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm, and the IDMS, for Identity Management System.

Well, no one said that developing and issuing a "smart card" that will vouch for the identity of every federal employee and most contractors would be easy.

President Bush launched the government's Personal Identity Verification Project in August 2004, calling for "secure and reliable forms of identification" to be developed for government workers as part of the administration's effort to stop terrorists, criminals and unauthorized people from getting into federal buildings and hacking into computer systems.

"The vision of this, when the president signed off on this, was that when you are granted an ID card at one agency, then that same ID card would work at another agency -- that you won't need 10 to 15 ID cards to get into different buildings," said Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator for e-government and technology policies.

The creation of a standard credential that can authenticate an employee's identity, Evans said, "shows we can improve our security posture."

The interagency project has set standards and guidelines, and federal agencies will begin issuing the government-wide identification card to new employees by Oct. 27, 2006, and phase in the card for current employees and contractors the next year.

The project is ambitious and raises tough questions that range from individual privacy to database security. It also might provide lessons for the ongoing debate over whether Americans should carry a national identification card.

"This is a test to see if you could do a large-scale card deployment in a diverse population," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group.

There's no tally of how many smart cards will be handed out across the government. But the Defense Department, for example, plans to issue about 3.6 million cards to the military, the Coast Guard and other uniformed personnel, Defense civil service employees and contractors.

Mary Dixon, who is heading up the ID project at the Pentagon, said Defense next year will begin issuing the new credentials as ID badges expire -- an undertaking that will take three years, she estimated.

Tim Grance, a systems and network security expert at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who helped develop standards for the new card, described the smart card as "a fairly complicated piece of real estate."

The card must display the name of the government employee, a photograph, the name of their agency or government affiliation and a card serial number and expiration date. Agencies may add optional information, such as a person's rank or pay grade.

Color schemes probably will be used to identify some categories of workers, such as red for first responders, blue for contractors and green for foreign nationals.

An electronic chip inside the card must include a personal identification number, or PIN, which will be used to prove the identity of the cardholder to the card. In addition, the chip must store two fingerprints and authentication data that are needed to get past security checkpoints in buildings and to log on to desktop computers, networks and e-mail systems.

"We want most of the stored data to be released from the card as the user permits," Grance said. The card will not carry Social Security numbers or other types of personal information, he said.

Officials acknowledge that the card is the easy step. The project requires agencies to rethink and more closely integrate personnel, technology and building security operations. Some agencies probably will scramble for money to buy new software and card readers.

The card also means the government will have to speed up background investigations of employees -- an area where agencies have struggled.

But officials predict the smart card will save money and improve security.

The card, Dixon said, "makes us more secure, because we will go through a more rigorous process. Some agencies issue credentials securely, and some don't."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com